How COVID-19 vaccine efforts could help defeat other diseases

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: John Letzing, Digital Editor, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum


  • A proposed way of immunizing against malaria uses an RNA-based approach similar to COVID-19 vaccines.
  • ‘Viral vector’ methods used to stem the pandemic could also yield vaccines for other purposes.
  • COVID-19 vaccination achievements could be applied to diseases that kill millions of people annually.

It may have been overlooked amid a spate of upbeat news about COVID-19 vaccine progress, but a report appeared last week on a potential breakthrough in defeating another disease that’s plagued us at least since the days of Hippocrates – and is still killing more than 400,000 people a year.

The method of immunizing against malaria detailed in the report would circumvent a protein that inhibits the memory T-cells necessary to make a vaccine effective. To do that, it would use RNA – the multi-talented molecule present in any biological cell – to tell a body how to make the problematic protein in order to be able to fight it.

RNA-based methods have underpinned COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Now, the possible application of RNA-based technology to malaria immunization marks just one of the ways vaccine research amplified to blunt the pandemic might help defeat other deadly diseases.

In addition to malaria, the research could supercharge efforts to immunize against maladies including HIV and tuberculosis.

Malaria has been a particularly thorny challenge. While a vaccine has already been developed (“RTS,S”), some have questioned its value as trials show it can only prevent about four in 10 cases.

Deaths resulting from malaria have fallen in recent years, but experts say more must be done to tackle one of the leading causes of death for children under the age of 5. The disease has also disproportionately impacted Africa, where 94% of cases and deaths occurred in 2019.

Image: World Economic Forum

Vaccines have traditionally been made of the virus they’re meant to target – albeit in a harmless form – to pre-emptively flag that virus for a body’s immune system.

Newer methods take a more targeted approach. While RNA-based technology is used in some COVID-19 vaccines, others are viral vector versions that use DNA to trigger an immune response to coronavirus proteins (examples include the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine recently authorized in the US).

Ultimately, this viral vector method could help facilitate additional vaccines for diseases like Zika and influenza.

The method has already been used to develop an Ebola vaccine approved for use in late 2019. One notable failure, however, was an attempted viral vector vaccine more than a decade ago for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS – which provided no protection against infection.

The number of estimated AIDS-related deaths declined by 39% between 2010 and 2019, but a target of 500,000 or fewer deaths by 2020 will be missed – despite increased access to antiretroviral therapy. Experts have warned the global AIDS response could now be set back by a decade or more, depending on how much COVID-19 disrupts HIV services.

Image: World Economic Forum

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Climate change has in some ways made the need for an effective malaria vaccine more urgent. According to this report, global warming means temperate zones are now no longer safe from the disease. (Asia Global Institute)
  • This piece argues that to refill a “reservoir of goodwill” for the US that’s drained since the end of the Cold War, the country should make the intellectual property and technical know-how necessary to manufacture and distribute COVID-19 vaccines freely available. (Niskanen Center)
  • Malaria can be difficult to diagnose, which can lead to over-treatment, which can lead to drug-resistant malaria. According to this report, a new test that detects the magnetic properties in malaria-infected blood may help address this issue. (Science Daily)
  • So, is an mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine that’s demonstrated 95% efficacy more desirable than a viral vector variety that’s shown 70% efficacy? According to this report, the answer isn’t so simple. (Nature)
  • Enter nanotechnology. A promising new COVID-19 vaccine candidate that utilizes nanotechnology has shown strong efficacy, according to this report, and may be “thermostable” and therefore easier to transport and store than currently authorized vaccines. (Science Daily)
  • The story of how New York’s only Black mayor tackled both HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis during his tenure in the 1990s needs to be told and retold, according to this analysis – to offer a guidepost about the place science should occupy during crises like COVID-19. (STAT)
  • A recent study has predicted that disruptions to HIV testing and treatment services due to COVID-19 in the US could lead to 11% increases in both new HIV infections and HIV-related deaths over a one-year period. (Imperial College London)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Vaccination, Science and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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